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Carter on Iranian Hostage Crisis: 'I Prayed More Than Any Time Else in My Life'


Former President Jimmy Carter, left, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, center, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak work together with volunteers with Habitat For Humanity to repair an old home in Minneapolis, Minn., 6 Oct 2010

Former President Jimmy Carter, left, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, center, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak work together with volunteers with Habitat For Humanity to repair an old home in Minneapolis, Minn., 6 Oct 2010

Thirty years ago this week, Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale lost their reelection bid to Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and his running mate George Herbert Walker Bush. Their defeat came at a time of rising unemployment, economic uncertainty and a hostage crisis in Iran that dragged on for 444 days. Now in separate books reflecting on their years in office, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale each recall how those events shaped the 1980 election.

For the publication of "White House Diary," the 26th book by Jimmy Carter, the former president reviewed more than 5,000 pages of notes he took while he was in the White House. Mr. Carter said the book gives readers an unprecedented look at the inner workings of his administration.

"I thought it would be intriguing for the American, and maybe the foreign, public just to have an unprecedented insight into what life was like in the White House, and also to explain what is going on today in more historic terms," said Carter.

The book offers insights into many of the defining moments of Mr. Carter's tenure in the Oval Office, including the Iran hostage crisis.

Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran on 4 Nov 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage. The former president says it led to the most daunting foreign policy challenge of his administration.

"I have said to many people, both religious and not religious, that that is the time when I prayed more than any time else in my life - during that time when the hostages were being held. My prayer was that I would protect the interests of my country, first of all, but that every hostage would come home safe and free."

In his memoir, "The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics," Mr. Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, outlines the efforts of the administration to get the hostages released.

"Some days, we thought we were making progress and we would get our hopes up. But most days, we were trying everything and it was not happening," writes Mondale.

"Trying everything" included a complex military rescue operation on April 24, 1980. Dubbed 'Operation Eagle Claw,' the plan called for several helicopters and military aircraft to stage at a site in the Iranian desert. Carter, who approved the plan, explains that the helicopters carrying members of the U.S. military's elite Delta Force, were to fly from there to the U.S. embassy in Tehran, free the hostages and return to the waiting aircraft that would fly the them out of Iran.

"The minimum number of helicopters required would be six very large helicopters. So I decided to send eight. One of the helicopters, in an inexplicable way, turned around and went back to the aircraft carrier. Another one went down in a sandstorm in the Iranian desert. The third one developed a hydraulic leak and ran into one of the C-130 airplanes."

The aborted mission ended in failure. Eight U.S. military members and one Iranian civilian died as a result of the crash. Walter Mondale admits that day was the lowest point of their administration. "That was the worst day when that rescue mission failed and lives were lost. I mean, that was just ... we were just morose that day and for some time after that," said Mondale.

The failure of the mission damaged Jimmy Carter's and Walter Mondale's credibility with the American public. The incident occurred seven months before the 1980 Presidential election, and contributed to Mr. Carter's defeat to challenger Ronald Reagan.

"The exact anniversary of the hostages being taken was election day," said Carter. "Of course, the news media were completely obsessed with the anniversary of the hostages being taken and the fact that I had not been able to get them out. That was the number one issue that caused me to fail. As a matter of fact, Reagan got less than 51 percent [of the popular vote - about 50.80 percent of the popular vote - and almost 91 percent of the electoral vote], but he still prevailed. The other factor was that, the last two-and-a-half years at least, I had [Massachusetts senator, Democrat] Ted Kennedy running constantly against me and opposing everything I tried to do in the Congress."

In their books, the former president and vice president write about the frustration and exhaustion of their final days in office, capped by humiliation on Inauguration Day.

On January 20, 1981, Iranian Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini waited for Ronald Reagan to be sworn into office before allowing the American hostages to leave Iranian airspace on their flight to freedom, which upset former Vice President Walter Mondale.

"It was a nasty thing that Khomeini did to insult us," said Mondale. "But that is all right. We can take that. But it was playing cat and mouse with human beings there that had a right to be released."

Carter said, "But I was so happy to know that the hostages were released, that I was not worried then about who got credit for their release."

Former President Jimmy Carter also said, "Reagan was very generous, in my opinion, in asking me if I would go to Wiesbaden, Germany to meet the hostages and to greet them when they finally reached freedom."

Despite the emotional toll the Iran hostage crisis took on both men, Walter Mondale said they remember their four years in office fondly. "When Carter and I left the White House, we said that we told the truth. We obeyed the law and we kept the peace. I think we did, and I feel very proud of that."

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale left office on January 20, 1981. Today, they are the longest-living former president and vice president in U.S. history, surpassing the team of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who lived 25 years after leading the nation.

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